Having looked to be moving steadily up through the gears after a slow start to the season, last week’s defeat to Bristol Rovers represented a stalling of the engine. The difficulty now is that, with three games over the next week against automatic promotion contenders, we are attempting to get back started again while traversing the steepest possible hill.
It was a series of calamities in defence that undermined what had been a bright start to proceedings last week. In particular, a seeming lack of focus from Dujon Sterling on three occasions played a hand in each of the three goals we conceded. Given the lack of goals in this side, defensive howlers are particularly costly for us right now.
Regarding Sterling, the Chelsea youngster appears to represent the biggest team selection issue for this upcoming clash with Sunderland. The risk taken with loan players from big clubs is that what they lack in first-team experience, they make up for in possessing a greater level of talent than you could otherwise afford. Thus far with Sterling, there have been the mistakes of inexperience with relatively little sign of the player he might one day develop into.
The difficulty in dropping Sterling right now is that would involve playing either Jordan Willis or Jordon Thompson out of position at right-back. The pragmatic decision would surely be to push Willis to full-back with Tom Davies coming into the side at centre-back, however, Sunderland’s mobile forward line may require the pace in the centre of defence that Willis offers, potentially opening the door for a first start for Thompson – or, Mark Robins may well decide to stick with Sterling for now (presuming that there isn’t a clause in the loan deal that renders any discussion of dropping him moot).
Elsewhere, Tom Bayliss’ return to fitness would be welcome for this game, based on last week’s showing without him in the side. If he is available, he’ll surely step into Liam Kelly’s place, although a conservative approach from Robins could see Bayliss come in for Jordan Shipley in a wide position as we look to keep the centre of the pitch as tight as possible.
Last Time We Met
It’s been just over a decade since we last took on Sunderland. A period of time in which we have been relegated twice, and won promotion once, via a spell in exile in Northampton, while Sunderland have mostly dwelled in the top-flight. The thought even 18 months ago that we could have been renewing our odd rivalry with the Mackems seemed fanciful.
In the last two seasons in which the Sky Blues and Sunderland have been in the same division, the home team has won every time. The last meeting came in February 2007 when Roy Keane’s Sunderland took on a Coventry City side in between Iain Dowie and Chris Coleman during the early days of SISU and won comfortably 2-0 at the Stadium of Light.
As proof, here’s some incredibly grainy footage of one those goals – apparently 2007 is a long time ago.
How Are They Doing?
Although Sunderland have started the reason strongly, manager Jack Ross – one of the top young managerial talents in Britain following his exploits at St Mirren – has had a difficult job in assembling a side that can win promotion when faced with the need to offload the astronomical earners who never justified their salaries and dragged Sunderland into the mess while looking to instill a winning mentality at a club that has become accustomed to losing.
In seven of their nine league games, Sunderland have conceded the first goal and have often looked disjointed with Ross struggling to identify his strongest starting XI and formation. However, the Scot has shown a good level of tactical nous with this strange Sunderland squad made up of Premier League hangovers, promising academy players and good League One/lower Championship-level players signed over the summer in tweaking things in-game to salvage draws and victories.
Of those still hanging around from their Premier League days, Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oviedo are likeliest to start. Cattermole may have lost a level of mobility over the past few years but has shown a willingness to fight for a first-team place and is someone who will exert a Doyle-esque presence in the centre of the park, if selected. Meanwhile, Oviedo at left-back provides Sunderland with a useful outlet with his crossing ability, having already led to three goals this season.
Of Sunderland’s academy graduates, Josh Maja and Lynden Gooch are the ones that have made the most impact this season. Maja has had to step-up as the front-man in Jack Ross’ preferred 4-2-3-1 system due to a combination of injuries and slow incoming transfer activity. Maja’s pace and finishing ability have been particularly eye-catching and he is currently the division’s joint-top-scorer. Gooch played for Sunderland in the Premier League but has only become truly first-choice this year, the American has incredibly quick feet and good balance, making him a big threat cutting in off the wing.
From Sunderland’s summer transfer business, Chris Maguire, Max Power and Jon McLaughlin have settled in the quickest. Maguire’s ability to place a ball on a penny via crosses and set-pieces is virtually unparalleled at this level, we should only know too well how lethal he can be from direct free-kicks. Power, the man with the best name in football, has added energy and control in central midfield since arriving from Wigan over the summer. McLaughlin meanwhile is an excellent shot-stopper and was part of a Burton side at this level a few years ago that simply refused to concede goals.
Sunderland’s main weakness appears to be both a lack of pace in defence and the dynamism in midfield to shield the back four. However, with Jack Ross a manager who has shown that he can change things mid-game and being able to boast the likes of Aiden McGeady and Jerome Sinclair from the bench, Sunderland may only need to produce 10 or 20 good minutes in this game to get a result.
Having beaten a Barnsley side two weeks ago that had arguably been more impressive this season than Sunderland – although the Black Cats arrive into this game off the back of their best showing of the campaign – there is cause to believe that we can send their travelling hoard of fans home with little else to comment about other than the tarpulin of Jimmy Hill covering the empty North Stand of the Ricoh Arena.
That being said, Sunderland are favourites for this game for a reason, they have been much more consistent, have a better squad and have shown a strong mentality this year to recover points from losing positions. Logic dictates to me to tip Sunderland for victory – 2-1 – but this should be seen as a game that we can win.